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When Committee Members Disagree
January 18, 2012 - 9:59am

This is a guest post from Kristen Baldwin Deathridge, a PhD Candidate in Public History at Middle Tennessee State University, @k10death

Researching and writing a dissertation can be one of the most exciting parts of graduate study; that final stage as we move from student to colleague. I behave as professionally as I can in all of my dealings with my committee members,* but recently I encountered a situation that I did now know how to handle at first. Two of my committee members completely disagree about something in the first draft of one of my chapters. After a brief moment of panic, some of which was aloud to one of my supportive peers, I realized that this particular problem has a couple of possible solutions. The easiest and perhaps most common solution when committee members disagree is to do what your committee chair wants.** After all, this is the main reason that committees have chairs--someone has to make the final call when ideas conflict.
In my case, the chair had read through the same chapter and not commented on this issue at all. The issue two of my committee members raised is largely one of writing style; one person would have me be more formal (i.e.: zero use of “I”) and the other argues that I should write as simply as possible (i.e.: using “I” now and then). I have decided to reread the chapter, considering both of their opinions. In this case, I will make my own decision and support the choice with evidence and respect. 
I am able to do this because the issue is one of style and because the chair of my committee has already proven supportive. It got me thinking that not all committee disagreements can be so easily resolved with these two principles. What would I do then?
As a PhD candidate, my experience with dissertation committees only includes my own. I asked Dr. Karen Kelsky, aka The Professor, who has served on many committees, if she would be willing to offer her perspective on how to negotiate between committee members.
Dr. Karen Kelsky's Advice
The problem with questions like this is that more often than not, they are red herrings.  That is, their premise is based on a false understanding or misconception to begin with.  The misconception concerns the actual level of investment in a dissertation by committee members.  More often than not, committee members can barely summon the energy to read a dissertation, let alone care about it.  While they may, in idle moments, or when directly accosted by the dissertator, venture to opine on the writing or the content of this or that chapter or section, the fact is, committee members, if they are not the primary advisor, have no real investment in the dissertation most of the time.  Dissertators, however, being the species of human known as graduate student, are so consumed by paranoia and anxiety that the slightest breath of a negative response from a committee member can send them into a tailspin of panic.  This panic is exacerbated when they perceive that two committee members have different opinions on the matter.
In reality, almost no faculty member is interested in alienating a departmental colleague over a dissertation.  Dissertations end, and graduate students leave.  Colleagues, however, stay on.  The collegial relationship is far more important, and far more worthy of care and investment, than the dissertation of a graduate student in the department.
Thus, the conflict described in the scenario, nine times out of ten, can be resolved in one of two ways.
1)  if you have a strong, legitimate reason for taking the position that you do, that you can justify with evidence and citations, then you are perfectly justified in holding firm and standing up to the faculty member with whom you disagree.  Just be prepared to make a strong and thorough case.  Because most committee members are not experts in your micro-field, if you can make a case, they will back down.  Refer to point above:  not. that. invested.
2)  the dissertator can schedule a meeting with one of the faculty members, and say very clearly, "I appreciate your excellent advice on my approach to chapter three.  Unfortunately, it appears to be in conflict with the recommendations of Professor XXX, who told me to do yyyyy.  I wonder if it is possible to find a way to manage the chapter so that I can accomodate both perspectives, or failing that, perhaps bracket one to employ later, in the book revision. You've always been so reasonable, and such a supporter of my career, so I'm coming to you first to see if you have any advice."
Chances are, the faculty member will say something like, "Oh, that's interesting.  a)  why don't you check with your advisor and let her decide; b) no problem; just make a note of my advice for your file and try and incorporate it in the book revision; c) I think you can chart a reasonable middle ground by doing xx and yy."
Rarely, very rarely, will the faculty member come back with, "Outrageous, I say!  Professor XXX is completely out of line!  Under no circumstances should you listen to him!"
There is only one category of faculty member who will consistently respond in this way, and that is the greybeard (soon-to-be) Emeritus.  Elderly faculty members frequently respond to their declining feeling of importance and influence by pitching battles over graduate students and dissertations, often one of the few remaining places they continue to hold sway.  This is one of the primary reasons that a graduate student should never have an elderly faculty member or emeritus on their committee.  The risks grow with every passing year, and the "genial" greybeard of year one can morph into an abusive, increasingly desperate tyrant by year six.
Generally, if the greybeard pitches a fit, the non-greybeard faculty member will back down for the sake of the graduate student and departmental peace, because when there is such a faculty member, everybody usually knows it and accomodates, rather than confronts, him.
In the final analysis, in very, very rare cases only will you genuinely, for real, in a non-paranoid, non-delusional sphere, actually find yourself confronted with two faculty members who are prepared to go *to the mat* over your approach to section four of chapter three of your dissertation.  If you do, consider removing one of the committee members sooner rather than later.  They are clearly more concerned with themselves than with you, and will do you no good as you move forward.  If the time frame is too short for that, take the problem to your diss chair and the department chair, and get a plan that has the support of others more powerful than you.  In the end you may need to write something unpalatable to please various constituencies.  In that case, remember the cardinal rule of the dissertation:  the best dissertation is the done dissertation.  Don't sweat it, finish, and get out.  The rest of your career is your own
Have you been placed in a tough spot through disagreements between members of your thesis or dissertation committee? Were you able to find a satisfactory solution? Please share stories of success (or failure) in your negotiations in the comments.
*Be sure to check out Terry Brock’s helpful tips on Hacking your Committee Meeting. These tips, especially about taking initiative and setting an agenda, can be applied to many interactions with members of your committee, including settling disagreements.
**These solutions only apply, of course, if the disagreement does not involve ethics violations.



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